So, if you’re one of the hundred or two regular readers of this space, you may notice this past year’s been a little… sparse. Not quite the standard level of output for this blog. Normally by this point in the year I’d’ve made at least a dozen posts, and I think this one makes seven so far for 2022.
It’s not for lack of topics. I’ve got two or three on deck, plus a nice question about foreign languages someone asked in the comments a while back (thanks, Oliver!). And I’m sure I’d end up with one or two more by the time all those are done. Saturday geekery usually spawns a good one every other week or so.
Truth be told… I’ve just been fried. Since 2022 started I’ve traveled for the first time in two years. I’ve been reading books for blurbs. I’ve been trying to work on my new novel and also the novel after that and a pair of short stories for different anthologies. There were a few vet visits (cats are all fine, no worries) and a new kitten who can be VERY loud sometimes (often in the middle of the night). Taxes are coming up and I still have a ton of work to do to get those even semi-organized. And of course, I had a new book come out—The Broken Room—which is a whole big thing in itself. Many thanks to those of you who may have read it and left a kind review someplace.
And, yeah, I know a lot of this is just what a pro writer’s supposed to be doing. Juggling stuff and scheduling time and making it all work. I’ve been doing it for many years now. But these past few months—since the holidays, really—I’ve just been friggin’ burnt. And like a lot of folks who hit this state, I’ve been letting one or two things slide. Not intentionally. It just sort of… happened. And this blog was one of the easiest things for it to happen with because…
Well, let’s be honest. This has never been a major stop for the general writing community. I really, truly appreciate all of you who’ve found your way here over the years, but I also see the numbers and I know this has never been a super popular spot. I’ve had plenty of off-the-cuff tweets that get far more visibility and interaction than posts I’ve spent multiple days working on. I enjoy doing this, but if something was going to slide it was bound to be the thing that feels like it’s got the lowest work/return ratio.
So I’m going to try to take a little time, maybe the next two or three weeks, and just try to get myself back to a place where I can get all those balls back up in the air and keep them there. I know I can do it. I want to do it. But one thing most people don’t realize about juggling is that it’s a serious arm workout. And you can only do any workout for so long before you either collapse or start getting kind of distorted.
And, hey, speaking of all this…
This weekend I’m going to be at WonderCon in Anaheim. I’m hosting the Writer’s Coffeehouse on Sunday (11-1:00) where I’ll be talking about publishing, answering questions, and trying hard to be educational and entertaining. If you happen to be there, please stop by and say hi.
Next time… we will talk about languages. I promise. And I’ll make sue you all know when it’s up.
I first heard this story many years ago under a different title—the slutty new idea—and while the story/idea is very true, in retrospect I’ve realized the original title is unnecessary and also doesn’t make a lot of sense, if you think about it. It’s implying there’s something wrong with the idea even though the writer’s the one being a bit *cough*cough* promiscuous here. And I don’t want to be one of those people blaming someone else for my behavior. Hopefully you don’t want to be that way either. Plus, I’ve seen it bandied around a lot more lately as the shinynew idea, which makes a lot more sense. It’s something new and eye-catching and…
Well, let’s talk about the shiny new idea. The story goes something like this…
Perhaps too good. Maybe a bit of a rut. I just don’t have the enthusiasm for the story I once did. There was a point that it was fun and playful and exciting and all I could think of, but as of late… well, the honeymoon’s over and now it takes some effort to get anywhere with my story. Things aren’t bad, mind you, they’ve just become a bit… rote. Maybe even mechanical.
So, anyway, the story and I are out and about and that’s when I happen to notice a shiny new idea across the room. It’s big and bright and it’s got that look to it that just says “hey, you know it’d be fun to tumble around with me for a while.” It’s got a sharp edge to it, and it’s showing just enough I start thinking about all the parts I’m not seeing, and all the fun this idea and I could probably have together. Just looking at it, it’s clear that is the kind of idea a writer’s supposed to have, not the dull thing I’ve somehow ended up with
In fact, let’s just take a moment and be honest with ourselves. That’s how we all want things to be with our ideas, right? It’s what movies and TV shows and so many twitter threads have assured us the life of a writer is like. It’s supposed to be this wild and spontaneous and intoxicating relationship we just can’t get enough of. We want it to keep us up late and wake us up early so we can get right back at it.
Wait, what do you think we’re talking about? No! This is a writing blog! Get your mind out of the gutter!
Anyway, a lot of us know the simple truth of the shiny new idea. Sure, it’s fun and exciting at first, but then one of two things happens. Sometimes we find out there’s not really anything else to it. Oh, that first weekend is fantastic, maybe the week after it is pretty cool, but it doesn’t take long to realize the shiny idea is… well, it’s a bit shallow. We had some fun, but after a couple days we realize things just aren’t going any further.
On the other hand, things might work out with me and the idea. The passion fades a little bit, but I’m still giving it my all and getting quite a bit in return. Eventually the two of us settle down into a comfortable story together. And just as I realize things are becoming a bit of work with my story, the two of us are sitting down one evening and I happen to notice a shiny new idea hanging out over at the bar…
Again, we’ve all been there, yes? Hell, I’m there right now. I’m working on this big six-book outline/ pitch document and yesterday I was filling Keyser holes in the lawn and had this whole new book idea pop into my head. So I went inside and scribbled out three pages of notes and oh, look, haven’t gotten much done on that pitch document today, have I?
There’s also a sad parallel to the shiny new idea which I’ve come to refer to as the booty call idea. This is the idea I used to spend a lot of time with, but now I don’t for one reason or another. Maybe we needed some time apart. Maybe it just wasn’t working out, and I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. It’s possible the idea and I just admitted it wasn’t going to work and decided to call it quits.
But, sometimes there I am late at night, and that idea looks kinda sweet again. There’s definitely some things I could do with it. Nothing serious, mind you, just a writer and an idea playing around, having some fun, no pressure. Yeah, there’s probably other things I should be working on, but one night won’t make any difference, right? Heck, not even the whole night. Just a couple hours to ease back into it and take care of that little itch I’ve had. And maybe this time it’ll be different.
But more often than not, come morning I just feel a bit guilty about the time I spent with the booty call idea when I should’ve been, well, doing other things.
Y’see, Timmy, it all comes down to focus. As I’ve said here once or thrice before, writing isn’t always going to be fun and fast and exciting. Sometimes it’s going to be work. There are going to be times when the days blend together.
But if I stick with it and don’t chase after every little idea that flashes me a bit of plot, I find that most of the days are going to be good ones. And more than a few will be fantastic.
Don’t chase after the shiny idea. Resist the urge to check in with the booty call idea. Don’t ignore them or forget about them, but don’t let them interfere with what you’re working on right now.
Okay, before we get to next time, this weekend is WonderCon! They’re now celebrating their second virtual year, and they’ve got a bunch of stuff lined up. For example, Saturday at (Pacific Time) we’re doing a virtual Writers Coffeehouse, where I’m answering questions about writing and publishing (and I convinced Sarah Kuhn, Stephen Blackmoore, Fonda Lee, and Greg VanEekhout to join me).
And then starting at on Saturday it’s… Saturday Geekery, WonderCon edition. We’re going to watch some wonderful movies together, like Thirteen Ghosts, Solomon Kane, and John Carter. It’s going to be tons of fun, with hashtags and other writers and stuff like that. Feel free to follow along (most of them are free to watch on Tubi or Disney+).
And next time here… I think we need to revisit a core issue. You know witch one.
In the before time, this would be the day I pack up and drive down to San Diego to beat the traffic. I’d crash with some friends, play some games, watch a movie, have a drink or three, and then tomorrow would begin the fun logistical nightmare that is San Diego Comic Con.
Of course, I moved to San Diego, and last year I found out how much easier some aspects of SDCC are when you can just walk a few blocks and hop on the train to downtown. And now that I’ve worked out the kinks, this year should be…
While SDCC is technically not happening, the folks behind it are trying to bring a lot of it home to, well, everyone. Panels and programs are getting released online, and you can spend the next few days watching and learning. Plus a lot of side things are going on directly from vendors, publishers, and even some creative folks like me.
Friday at (PST)on the SDCC YouTube Channel, I’m going to be on a panel with Kiersten White, Henry Herz, and Fonda Lee as we talk about creating worlds, characters, and conflicts as sci-fi and fantasy writers.
Saturday at (PST) on Twitter, I’m going to be hosting an unofficial geekery watch party with a couple author friends and a trio of great B-movies to comment on. Krull. Constantine. Resident Evil. We’re going to watch them all, talk about why we love them, the things they do really well… and some of the thing they don’t. Plus, there’s going to be some giveaways from Audible (seriously) and tons of celebrity guests (no, not seriously… probably).
Sunday… well, normally we do some version of the Writers Coffeehouse at SDCC. As some of you know I’ve been trying to get it going again as an online Q & A/ discussion, where I ask a bunch of writer friends to help answer your questions about writing. There’s already a few episodes up on my own YouTube channel, and on Sunday I’m going to put up a lot more. So hop over there and get answers from Django Wexler, Kristi Charish, A. Lee Martinez, ML Brennan, Stephen Blackmoore, and more.
And all of this for the low, low price of absolutely free, delivered to you right there on your couch as you safely physically distance and do your part to help get Covid under control.
Beta readers have come up here a couple of times, and we’ve talked about them at the Writers Coffeehouse (before the plague year forced us to go digital with it). But we’ve never really talked much about how to choose beta readers. What I want to be looking for, what I’ll need from them, and so on.
I’ve actually asked three new people to be beta readers for me on this book. For a few different reasons. And I thought it might be worth going over some of these reasons.
So… what doI look for in a beta reader?
(aside from a high level of beta-particle absorption…?)
Knowledge – All of my beta readers have something they’re better than me at. It might be a specific aspect of their background, their education, or a point of view I just can’t emulate, but there’s always something they know that I don’t. There’s a specific reason I want this person to read this manuscript before I send it off to my agent or an editor.
On a related note, these are also people I know understand why I’m asking them to look at this. They know what I’m hoping to hear (or not hear) from them. And they understand the format I’d like to get these notes back in. When I ask my biochemist friend to read this, he should understand I’m hoping he’ll catch any glaring errors in biochemistry, and maybe also related dialogue and actions. It doesn’t help me if I ask a lawyer I know to beta-read my courtroom drama and she says “I didn’t see any typos, except for a couple glaring ones in the last third of the manuscript.”
Patience – Before I start sending a manuscript off, I double check with folks to make sure they’ve actually got time for this right now. They might be able to squeeze in reading a book right now, but do they actually have room in their schedule to go through my manuscript (possibly twice) with a critical eye? I want to make sure they’re going to be able to consider and absorb things, not just skim through and say “I liked it.”
There’s also a personal thing to this. I need to be aware of what people like so I can at least have an early sense of how they’ll (hopefully) respond to this. If Phoebe really loathes mysteries, I don’t want to give her a book with a strong mystery element and ask her what she thinks. She’s going to have a lot more patience for a story with a strong sci-fi aspect.
This is important because…
(a chime rings, signaling you to turn the page)
The Micro and Macro– This is one of the ones were it’s especially important to have a really good sense of my readers. When it comes to criticism, any book is going to have two aspects to it. There’s the big picture stuff—did you like it? Did the twist make sense? Was Wakko’s overall motivation believable? Then there’s the smaller stuff—does this line of dialogue work? Does this description stand out? Is this action too detailed?
The catch is, there are things that can look wrong or odd on the small scale, but it turns out they’re correct when we look at the big picture. If I say “Hitler died in 1964,” that’s wrong. But if I say that in a sci-fi, secret-history story, maybe there’s something to it.
I don’t want a beta reader who’s only going to focus on the micro or the macro, and not how they combine to make a good book. I don’t want them to have the book for a month and then just say “This was pretty good overall,” and I also don’t want to get back 300 marked-up pages where they marked something as wrong that’s explained three paragraphs later.
Honesty – I don’t think I’ve ever used a beta reader that I’ve known for less than two years. Most of them I’ve known for more than five, and about half of them for fifteen or more. And by “known” I mean hung out with, had long one-on-one discussions with, probably shared a meal or two, maybe a drink. I know them and they know me.
At the same time, I’m not some faceless internet account they’re going to aim a firehose of criticism at. Some folks like to crow how they’re “just being brutally honest,” when the truth is they just like tearing things apart.
Trust—My last point about beta-readers ties to the previous one, but actually falls on us, the writers. Now that I’ve carefully selected these well-qualified people to read my manuscript… am I going to listen to them? Do I actually trust their knowledge and opinions, or am I just going to brush their criticism aside because I don’t like it?
I need to trust my beta readers. If I’ve got any doubts about their abilities, their motives, or their work ethic… I probably shouldn’t ask them to read this. If I’m going to ignore what they tell me, or tell myself they just didn’t get it… I probably shouldn’t ask them to read this. We need to be open to the criticism we’re going to get, and we have to trust the people giving it to us.
And that’s the kind of stuff I look for in a beta reader. You may have a few special considerations of your own, depending on your own editing methods or the particular piece you’re working on. And that’s all fine—it’s what works for you.
But if this is the first time you’re ever gone hunting for beta readers and you’re not quite sure what their footprints look like… well, maybe some of this will help get you on the right track.
Next time on the ranty blog… I got a question about genre, and that’s always fun to talk about. And the week after that is (technically) San Diego Comic Con weekend, so there may be some fun to be had.